Workers peered through safety goggles as they fitted together parts of the electric motors they were building on a General Motors assembly line in White Marsh.
For now, the parts are made in a factory in Mexico and then shipped to Baltimore County for assembly. But not for long.
By the end of the year, motors for cutting-edge electric vehicles will be built from scratch in a sprawling $244 million plant under construction next to GM's factory, now called General Motors Baltimore Operations.
About 189 workers will be hired to build the motors for a new generation of plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, joining the 220 employees at the existing plant. The new plant's first order of business will be building motors for the Chevrolet Spark, a five-door mini-car with a hatch that GM plans to roll out in 2013, according to a company spokeswoman.
On Wednesday, the automaker offered a look at the nearly completed 100,000-square-foot facility during a visit by U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, who was accompanied by Gov. Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and other local officials.
Solis has been touring factories around the country to highlight the resilience of American manufacturing and to tout the Obama administration's focus on the manufacturing sector as a job creator.
The GM plant, which will be the first electric motor production facility operated by a major U.S. automaker, provides a glimpse of the trend toward "in-sourcing" — returning jobs to the United States.
"We're expanding beyond just transmissions," plant manager William Tiger said. "We'll be making drive units and we'll be making electric motors, all of which will bring in jobs."
GM, which is investing about $129 million, is building the new facility with a combination of subsidies from the federal, state and county governments, including $105 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, $6 million in grants from Baltimore County, and $4.5 million in state grants for economic development and job training.
The automaker, which saw its sales plummet during the recession and was forced to cut jobs and close dealerships, was given a $52 billion government bailout in 2009. Last year, GM sold more vehicles globally than any other automaker.
During a tour led by Tiger, Solis chatted with workers, some in a glass-walled room where parts for new electric motors are tested, and some on assembly lines, where visitors were warned to stay clear of moving equipment.
Solis said she believed U.S. manufacturing was on the rebound, noting that more than 230,000 jobs have been created in the sector in the past year. President Barack Obama has proposed tax incentives to encourage companies to return jobs to the United States.
"The Baltimore GM plant is a great example of in-sourcing," Solis said. "These are new jobs here at home building a new technology we can export around the world."
On one assembly line, blue-gloved workers put together A1000 transmissions, which are used in Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. On another, workers made transmissions used in hybrid vehicles such as the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and the Cadillac Escalade SUV.
Since opening in 2000, the Baltimore County plant, formerly called Allison Transmission, has built more than 1.3 million transmissions, GM said.
Team leader Johnnie Nelson, 67, said he has worked for GM for 46 years, starting out at a GM plant, now closed, on Broening Highway. Nelson said he welcomed the expansion of the White Marsh facility.
"The more [work] we get, the longer all our people will be working," Nelson said. "It creates jobs. The way things are going makes it better for the younger people."
O'Malley hailed the White Marsh plant's expansion.
"It shows the tremendous rebound of GM," O'Malley said. "The thing we need to do is to bring back jobs and bring back manufacturing … [and] bring jobs back from Mexico here to Baltimore County."